The U.S. Is Building Its New London Embassy on a Stone-Age Campground

The shimmering, bomb-resistant glass structure will be surrounded by a moat.

One a caveman campground, now a construction site for the new U.S. embassy in London.
National Journal
Marina Koren
May 30, 2014, 9:16 a.m.

Four years ago, a Phil­adelphia ar­chi­tec­ture firm won the right to design the new United States Em­bassy build­ing in Lon­don.

And in the last year, ar­chae­olo­gists mon­it­or­ing the con­struc­tion site have dis­covered tools, charred re­mains of camp­fires, and even an­im­al bones dat­ing back 800,000 years to the Stone Age, LiveSci­ence re­ports. In oth­er words, our dip­lo­mat­ic mis­sion in Lon­don is go­ing to sit on top of a cave­man camp­ground.

“Pre­his­tor­ic sites in Lon­don are ex­tremely rare and to have such a vast ho­ri­zon pre­served is quite sig­ni­fic­ant,” Kasia Ol­chow­ska, a seni­or ar­chae­olo­gist at the Mu­seum of Lon­don Ar­chae­ology, tells Megan Gan­non.

Eng­land’s streets have a knack for hid­ing his­tory for ri­dicu­lously long peri­ods of time. In 2012, ar­chae­olo­gists dis­covered the skel­et­on of King Richard III, who ruled Eng­land dur­ing the 15th cen­tury, be­neath the as­phalt of a park­ing lot.

In 2008, the State De­part­ment bought a new site for the U.S. Em­bassy in the Nine Elms area of Wandsworth in Lon­don, on the south side of the Thames River. It then launched a con­test to find a design firm to build the dip­lo­mat­ic hub. The em­bassy’s ex­ist­ing loc­a­tion, a 1950s-era struc­ture in cent­ral Lon­don, was “too small, out­dated, and hard to de­fend from se­cur­ity threats,” said Louis Sus­man, then the U.S. am­bas­sad­or to Bri­tain.

Kier­anTim­ber­lake won the com­pet­i­tion in Feb­ru­ary 2010. The em­bassy, slated for com­ple­tion in 2017, will be a massive, $1 bil­lion glass cube moun­ted on a colon­nade, with a pond and path­ways for the pub­lic (see a photo here). With­in the beau­ti­ful, shim­mer­ing design are some pretty in­tense se­cur­ity meas­ures: The glass ex­ter­i­or is bomb-res­ist­ant, and the pond is es­sen­tially a moat.

Back when the State De­part­ment was con­sid­er­ing designs, more than two years be­fore an at­tack in Benghazi, Libya, would kill four Amer­ic­an dip­lo­mats and ex­pose pre­vent­able se­cur­ity is­sues, em­bassy safety was a big con­cern. The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Philip Ken­nicott wrote in 2010 about the de­part­ment’s com­pet­i­tion:

It might “¦ re­flect the State De­part­ment’s de­sire for fresh and deep­er think­ing about how to design aes­thet­ic­ally pleas­ing but se­cure fa­cil­it­ies. In re­cent years, the gov­ern­ment has re­lied on stand­ard em­bassy designs as it worked to rap­idly re­place or up­grade over­seas fa­cil­it­ies in the nervous post-2001 en­vir­on­ment. Many of those were cri­ti­cized for be­ing fort­ress­like, for­bid­ding, and isol­ated from their sur­round­ings and the people they serve.

In a post-Benghazi word, “fort­ress­like, for­bid­ding, and isol­ated” prob­ably sounds just about right, even in a much friend­li­er na­tion.

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